National Gallery of Canada / Musée des beaux-arts du Canada

Bulletin 25, 1975

Annual Index
Author & Subject

Modern Gothic in Canada

by R. H. Hubbard

Pages  1  |  2  |  3  |  4  |  5  |  6

It was Sir Giles Gilbert Scott (1880-1960), another grandson of Sir George Gilbert and the brother of Adrian, who had the final word in Gothic. Between 1946 and 1950, the architect of Liverpool Cathedral designed the chapel of Trinity College, Toronto (5) (fig. 3), which was carried out in 1953-1955 by the Toronto firm of George and Moorhouse. Appropriately enough, this is a perfect little gem of a building. Its apse, rib vaults, and tall Perpendicular windows result in a fine interior that is lofty and spacious. A few touches of oddness are there to give it character. The extremely delicate tracery in the windows and the attenuated forms of the turreted reredos make the design English to the point of aesthetic understatement.

The other main influence on Modern Gothic in Canada carne from the United States and from one American in particular. Ralph Adarns Cram (6) (1863-1942) was his country's chief exponent of church architecture in the first half of the century. Born in New Harnp shire, the son of a Unitarian minister, he opened an office in Boston in 1890 and one in New York some few years later. Until 1913 he was in partnership with Bertrarn Grosvenor Goodhue (1869-1924) who, as a pupil of Jarnes Renwick, formed a link with Victorian Gothic in New York. Cram, a convert to High Anglicanism, was a deeply religious man who built a private chapel on his farm at Sudbury, Massachusetts.

His early writings (7) reveal the close relationship between his religious beliefs and his architectural doctrines. For him a church, as a place in which to celebrate "the sublime mysteries of the Catholic faith," must embody an atmosphere of "spiritual emotion" centring round the altar. In reaction to the "tricks" and "pretences" of late nineteenth-century architecture - plaster vaults, brick veneer, or steel frames disguised with period detail - and objecting to the "fictitious vitality" of Richardsonian Romanesque, he turned to the "honesty" of the English Perpendicular Gothic. It was this style that modern architects should take up where it left off "when all art was destroyed at the time of the Reformation." Victorian Gothic, according to Cram, had failed because it had attempted to copy the Early English and Decorated, which had finished their courses in the Middle Ages. Moreover, to continue the Perpendicular was to continue "our" style, "for we two [English and Americans] are one people, with one history and one blood." Cram was evidently an American sympathizer with those who at this time were proclaiming Anglo-Saxon unity. The English parish church, with its plain stone walls outside, not contorted into rock-face or cobblestones, and its richly coloured reredos inside, was his ideal. Not the sublimity and perfection of the French Gothic, nor anything other than the homeliness of the English should be the starting-point for American architecture.

It is interesting to note that Cram, who proclaimed these doctrines in 1899, soon relaxed them to admit the use of continental Gothic as well as the Georgian, Byzantine, Norman, and Spanish styles in regions and for churches where they were appropriate. (8) He thus revealed himself as the Beaux-Arts eclectic he was at base. Yet he always cherished his first love, the Gothic, and was pleased to find "Protestants" adopting it and coming round to "Catholic sacramentalism."

Moreover, for all his ideals of simplicity and sincerity, he found himself undertaking some very large projects. In spite of his love of the English country church, he designed relatively few small buildings and a goodly  number of large ones: St Thomas's, New York (1903), the United States Military Academy at West Point (1908), Princeton Graduate College (1913) and chapel (1929), and above all the gigantic scheme (1910 ff.) for the Cathedral of St John the Divine in New York. The grandiose scale on which he worked expressed the character of the period of American Imperialism, and Henry-Russel Hitchcock discusses his work as "lifeless and even crude" beside that of Bodley and Pearson. (9) An English critic describes his churches as unreal, unfunctional extravagantly expensive and filled with an "orgy of late Gothic Carving." (10)

Cram is represented in Canada by two early works, one large and one small. The large one is All Saints' Cathedral, Halifax (11) (fig. 4), begun in 1907 and never finished. The existing parts, consecrated in 1910, are a large nave with transepts and a choir with its own transepts; lacking are the west front and central tower of the original design. The exterior stone surfaces are of an exemplary simplicity and sturdiness, and the whole design is compact and unified. Unfortunately, the building has been plagued from the start by structural troubles. The Halifax weather and two explosions so weakened its masonry that a massive restoration became necessary in 1953-1954. Probably for this reason it has never figured in the books on Cram's work.

His small church was a more successful venture. St Mary's, Windsor (12) (fig. 5), was built in 1903-1904 by the Walkers, the distilling family. With its massive tower, it is well composed on the outside and is finely sited with its rectory and parish hall in a large churchyard. The interior is late Perpendicular with a low-pitched timber roof and a massive reredos designed by Goodhue and executed by I. Kirschmayer, Cram's "amazing craftsman out of the fifteenth century." (13) Yet St Mary's is an isolated American gem set in Canada and built without heed to cost. Its buildings materials, sculpture, glass, and even landscape design were imported from the United States.

In spite of these executed buildings and an ambitious project submitted for the ill-starred St Alban's Cathedral, Toronto, (14) Cram's importance for Canada (15) lies in the fact that he inspired the Canadian architects of his time. Chief among these was Canada's leading exponent of the Gothic, Henry Sproatt (l6) (1866-1934). A contemporary of Cram, Sproatt was nevertheless a conservative Upper Canadian and perhaps for this reason, a late starter. The son of a civil engineer, he was a pupil of Kivas Tully, a versatile mid-Victorian architect in Toronto. In 1882, he articled with another Toronto architect, Arthur R. Denison, before spending a period in New York, where he presumably met Cram. (17) After a period of travel in Europe, Sproatt returned to Toronto in 1892; the following year, along with John A. Pearson, he entered into partnership with the late Victorian architect Frank Darling. At this time he worked on churches like St Paul's, Charlottetown, a pleasant if conventional design in red brick. In 1899, Sproatt set up his own office in Toronto in partnership with Brnest Ross Rolph (1871-1958), railway engineer and architect. Their earlier work seems to have consisted mainly of houses. In the Beaux-Arts spirit, they designed in various styles (18) throughout the firm's career.

But Sproatt's great love, like Cram's, was the Gothic. Apparently subscribing to the same general philosophy as the American, he was more pragmatic and terse in his expression of it: "Bach style has its place, but Gothic collegiate architecture is the one architecture developed for scholastic work. It has proved a success and a joy. Why throw it away?" (19) His Gothic work on any scale was late in appearing, but when it emerged, on the eve of the First World War, it was full-fledged and masterful.

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